Question(s):
a) Explain Wittgenstein’s “picture theory.” Why does he think that some things can only be shown and not said.
b) Critically consider his view that this theory itself can only be shown. Doesn’t he, after all, seem to say the things that he says can only be shown? Why does he believe he cannot “say” these things, why do you think he is right/wrong here?

Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian-British philosopher, made his remark in the world of analytic philosophy in the early 20th century with his unique and somewhat controversial perspectives on reality, language, and philosophy’s role in the world, which in addition to bringing about a connection between modern logic and metaphysics, greatly influenced the empiricist group, known as the Vienna Circle. Wittgenstein’s early work primarily emphasized logical atomism, and the relationship between the world, language and thought. His most famous piece and only book, ​Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus​, recognized by many as one of the most important philosophical works of the 20th century, captures a large part of his logical positivist and metaphysical views, as well as what he believes to be the solution to all philosophical problems. His main goal in writing this piece, was to address and attempt to cease these central problems of philosophy by utilizing modern logic to structure language in a way that it corresponds to reality, setting the “limits” to language and thought, and providing insight on what can be regarded as meaningful. Particularly, he derives a theory of language that embodies metaphysics, and distinguishes what can be “said” from what can only be “shown”, known as the “picture theory”, one of the most impactful ideas credited to his work. In this essay, I shall explain the aspects of ​Wittgenstein’s picture theory ​and provide an interpretation of the belief attributed to it, that distinguishes “saying” from “showing”​. Furthermore, I shall apply this belief to the picture theory itself, and explain why he claims that it is something that can only be “shown”.

Wittgenstein begins his piece with the claim that “​the world is everything that is the case”, the world being “the totality of facts, not of things”. This idea that fact is the center of everything that exists, fosters Wittgenstein’s perspective on truth, which he regards as coming from ​an accord with reality, that is, the way things are in the world. Similarly, he derives falsity as coming from representing the nonexistent, that is, things that are not the case. Moreover, he regards the vehicles of expressing these facts, of expressing reality, as taking the form of spoken/written language, namely sentences, visual representations, such as photographs and drawings/paintings, and even more abstract entities, such as thoughts, and propositions. He calls this family of expressive mediums “pictures”. ​That being said, the picture theory, can be taken simply to be the idea of conveying truth, sense and meaningfulness by creating models of reality, that express, in some way or another, facts about the world. ​Further, he claims that for these “pictures” to be considered as such, they must have something in common with what they depict, that is, they must possess elements of fact and share a connection with reality, precisely, a logical one.

A recurring theme throughout this piece is the idea that some things cannot be “said”, and must rather be “shown”. This claim in particular, being the prime thesis of the picture theory, is not explicitly defined. ​Wittgenstein​ is somewhat vague and rather cryptic about the precise distinction between “saying” and “showing”. However, he hints at the idea that factual claims, that is, claims about the way the world is, are the only things that can be “said”. Respectively, claims that do not express in some way or another facts about the world, are “unsayable”. They are considered senseless and should be “passed over in silence”, as they say nothing that corresponds to reality. “Pictures” then, fall under the category of what can be “said”, as they correspond with the way things actually are, or “what is the case”. The only aspect of pictures that must be “shown”, does not exist within the pictures, it is beyond them. ​As mentioned previously, pictures closely resemble reality in that they posses elements that correspond to fact. What distinguishes them from reality however, is simply their pictorial form, which is specifically what allows them to be expressions of the world. This particular element that characterizes a picture, is something that cannot be part of the picture. It is something that must be shown. Wittgenstein explicitly points out that “a ​picture cannot depict its pictorial form: it displays it”. The reason for this, being that it cannot “place itself outside its representational form”. ​For example, a sentence of the form “A and B” when referencing some fact, can merely say things about the way the world is, but that it is takes a logical “pictorial” form is something that can only be shown. ​If a picture were to possess and exhibit such a characteristic, that is, the ability to depict its own pictorial form, then this element would no longer represent the form of the picture it intended, but that of some other, namely, the one it would have represented without it as part of the picture. This picture then, having as part of it the ability to recognize its own pictorial form, would have a new form outside of itself, that too, could only be shown. Falling under the same category of things that can only be “shown”, according to ​Wittgenstein, are philosophical propositions, including,​ metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical propositions, which he states as things that “cannot be put into words”, rather they “make themselves manifest”. For this reason, he concludes that the picture theory itself, being part of this philosophical category, is not “sayable”, as it does not express anything factual about the world, rather it is shown through the grammatical and logical uses of language.

In deriving this theory, that distinguishes what can be “said” from what must otherwise be “shown”, ​Wittgenstein claims that he ​has solved the problems of philosophy, which he regards as stemming from the “attempt to say the unsayable”. Moreover, he establishes the “limits” of language/expression and thought, that determine what can be meaningfully said and thought, allowing for a more clear understanding of the world.

Based on: Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1921.